Voices From Hades by Jeffrey Thomas
Sometimes, the only way of getting to the heart of the matter is to cut into the body, prod the heart with a sharp stick, and see if that makes it tick. Although this may strike you as a somewhat radical approach, it’s nevertheless the scientific method at work. In school biology classes, you may have been offered the chance to physically inspect the organs inside small animals (usually frogs or mice). In this endeavour, it’s curious to see how culture changes. Dissection was a routine part of biology classes when I was young — no choice was offered in those days. Now, the whole question of morality and “animal rights” clouds the physical investigation of their insides. Some organisations, usually disingenuously including the word “humane” or “ethical” in their name, come into the debate with varying degrees of ferocity, intending to suppress any of our hands-on investigative work that might taint their sincerely-held beliefs. Well, here’s the equivalent of dissection in fiction (it would have been vivisection except the book deals with human dead and not their living form) for similar organisations to get all excited about.
One of the more pleasing “what ifs” is consideration of what it might be like if, upon dying, you find yourself in either a Heaven or Hell. Ignoring the blockbuster Christian Rapture series like Left Behind by LaHaye and Jenkins, which have contrived to dominate bestseller lists on and off over the last fifteen years or so, there’s a venerable history of books dealing with the phenomenon of the afterlife, including Purgatory and the judgment of the disposition between Heaven and Hell. Think only of Dante and Milton, then move through C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, until you get to the modern crop of authors. Over the centuries, there are hundreds of books and short stories demonstrating varying degrees of reverence or irreverence. All of which brings us to Voices From Hades by Jeffrey Thomas, the author of the admirable Punktown series.
This collection is radical in assuming practical monotheism with Hell reserved for anyone who is neither baptised nor a believer in the Christian God. This means Hell is full of everyone from all the alternative belief systems. In this, you will understand, Hell is not into concepts like fairness. The fact you might have led an exemplary life as a Hindu or Moslem is ignored. You were mistaken in your choice of a God to worship and pay the price reserved for all blasphemers and apostates. Two factors make this particular version of the afterlife particularly subversive. First it assumes the damned will have relatively ordinary lives except, from time to time, they will be tortured by demons. This is the old, you cannot understand darkness unless you know light. If you were subjected to pain continuously, you would slowly adapt and tolerate it. Thus, this Hell alternates punishment and relatively mundane lives of work and play. The second factor is the attitude of the angels. For the most part, they have gone through life in a fog of self-serving hypocrisy. Now happily ensconced in Heaven, they can give full rein to their holier-than-thou attitudes which, when the mood takes them, includes helping out the demons in their infliction of pain on the damned.
So here we have eight stories set in this “alternative” version of Hell (with a quick peek into Heaven so we can all appreciate the way the system works). Thematically, they tend to focus on the idea of love. In one sense, this is ironic since the New Testament God is supposed to be the embodiment of perfect love to cast out fear and other bad emotional stuff. Yet He shows precious little love in the administration of either wing in this afterlife dimension. It’s actually left to individuals to decide just how much they dare to love. Which starts us off with “The Abandoned”. Here a damned woman is just trying to get through the whole experience, keeping her head down and not making any commitments. Yet when she sees an abandoned and probably dying infant demon, she has to decide whether to walk by on the other side. Perhaps it’s odd to think of one of the damned having a growing opportunity, but this could open her to accept a better afterlife for herself. In “Black Wings”, we get to meet some angels who prove to be the same narrow-minded hypocrites we know so well on Earth. Against a background in which the current religions seek to define marriage as a sanctified union between a man and a woman, it’s good to see such an open marriage with interspecies options. Except, of course, demons come with their own emotional baggage, including the possibility of devastating consequences should the idea of revenge intrude into an unbalanced sexual equation. The next story “Siren” is all that is good about horror fiction. Too often, we readers are offered little more than gore and splatter. In these stories, it would be to offer nothing more than scenes in the spirit of Hieronymus Bosch. But this story has the horror arising from our ability to empathise with the main protagonist. His shock at the depths of his own prurience and how terrible the outcome is truly memorable.
“Sweet Oblivion” plays with the idea that, in this context, even thinking about reincarnation could be blasphemous. Although since the experience of punishment is indefinite, things are hardly going to get much worse if you do blaspheme or, even, dream of escape. “The Secret Gallery” does give us some hope in that we meet an angel and a Celestial being who might actually have some level of compassion more to be expected of those inhabiting a New Testament Heaven. This more hopeful trend continues in “The Burning House” in which individual demons and angels find it in themselves to work together to save the one they love. This revisits the themes of “The Abandoned” and demonstrates that love can conquer all. This also underpins the final story “Piece of Mind” in which a demon has to make a choice on whether to stand up for what he believes may be important.
Overall, this is a genuinely pleasing collection if your belief system permits you to play with religious concepts or ideas. Kudos to Dark Regions Press for being brave enough to publish what many would consider a controversial book.
This is a genuinely pleasing collection with one or two really outstanding stories.